UA1-WA:P4-p1-Exercise: Visit a portrait gallery

npg_01For this exercise I visited the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in Canberra – http://www.portrait.gov.au/. This is a fairly new institution in a new building. NPG’s first exhibition was held in 1994, but it was under the management of the National Library of Australia. It became an institution in its own right in 1998 and was housed in Old Parliament House until the purpose-built gallery was opened in 2008.

npg_02In the entranceway to the gallery is this work, Geo Face Distributor by James Angus (2009, enamel paint on cast aluminium) (NPG link). The Gallery website catalogue entry refers to “our innate capacity to recognise and respond to the faces of others”, and I think this work fits the location very well.

I have already written about two works in the NPG – the busts of Trucaninny and Woureddy by Benjamin Law (see 13-Mar-2014). The National Gallery of Australia (NGA) is about 200 metres away and also has casts of the busts. The NGA pair are on plinths of equal height, set at either end of a Regency period double-end sofa (NGA link). In my eyes the formal setting combined with the distance between the two busts turned these significant works into decorative items. Probably this is reflective of their original use, but the arrangement at the NPG – the busts on unequal plinths, the closer space between them – create hugely greater emotion and meaning. This could be in keeping with the purpose of the two Galleries, NGA presenting art, and NPG telling a story about people, their identity and culture.

I chose three focus paintings at NPG. The first is Portrait of Captain James Cook RN by John Webber (1782; oil on canvas) (http://www.portrait.gov.au/site/collection_info.php?irn=143&acno=2000.25) (unfortunately photography is not permitted and the Gallery declined my request for photographs to use). Cook died in 1779, so this work was posthumous, however Webber had travelled with Cook and painted at least two other portraits of him, so knew the subject well. Cook of course was a great navigator, and in 1770 as a lieutenant took formal possession of the east coast of Australia on behalf of England. A biography can be found at http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cook-james-1917, and includes the information Cook “was also severe on uncompliant natives whom he met on his voyages, and his readiness to use force contributed to his untimely death” at the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii).

Cook is seen in uniform, including a sword. He has signet (seal), suggesting the official documents he wrote. His right hand is gloved, showing the personal knowledge of Webber (Cook’s hand had been injured by an exploding horn of gunpowder). He looks confident and relaxed, at home and in control in any environment.

The sea, so long Cook’s home, is in the background on the left. An overgrown hillside is on the right, symbolic of the lands he “discovered”, explored, and in some cases claimed. The sky is dark, with pinks and grays in the clouds and glimpses of lighter blue, including one to the right of the face which provides contrast the the modelling shadow.

The OCA course notes ask about where the portrait was originally displayed and who would have seen it. Strangely enough it seems it may have remained in Webber’s possession until his death, then possibly passed through the hands of William Segieur (first Keeper of London’s National Gallery), spent 150 years or so in Hull Trinity House (for infirm seamen), before a complex sequence involving failed high-flying business men and a mysterious stint in Switzerland. An odd history, but certainly this formal portrait of a famous seaman would have been very appropriate at Trinity House. (Information from Huda, 2008).

My second focus work is Dame Mary Gilmore by Lyall Trindall (c. 1938; oil on canvas) (http://www.portrait.gov.au/site/collection_info.php?searchtype=basic&irn=196&acno=2001.42). Gilmore (1865 – 1962) was an Australian writer and a social crusader. She campaigned on “a wide range of social and economic reforms, such as votes for women, old-age and invalid pensions, child endowment and improved treatment of returned servicemen, the poor and deprived and, above all, of Aboriginals” and wrote about “such diverse subjects as the English language, the Prayer Book, earthquakes, Gaelic and the immigration laws, the waratah as a national emblem, the national anthem and Spanish Australia” (Wilde, 1983). She is featured on the Australian $10 note and there is an annual poetry prize in her name, among many other legacies of her contribution to the country.

The portait shows a woman of keen intelligence, one willing and able to speak her mind, with a direct gaze and a firm mouth. Gilmore is seated and appears relaxed but alert. The clothes suggest the period and that she was neither greatly wealthy nor poor. There is a wedding ring but no other jewellery. There is a sense of authority and a no-nonsense approach. However there are few other details provided, unlike for example Gilmore’s 1943 portrait by Joshua Smith (http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/7619/), which includes books, Gilmore writing, native flowers and that same direct gaze. Another portrait of Gilmore painted by Tindall is held at the State Library of New South Wales (see http://acms.sl.nsw.gov.au/item/itemLarge.aspx?itemID=433038) and shows the same alert stance, steady gaze and firm mouth, but this time holding a book, perhaps (patiently?) dealing with an interruption before she returns to her reading. I haven’t been able to find any detail on the painting’s provenance, but it seems the sort of work that could be hung in a school to inspire students (a number of schools have a “Gilmore” house).

The final focus work is Eddie Mabo (after Mike Kelley’s ‘Booth’s Puddle’ 1985, from Plato’s Cave, Rothko’s Chapel, Lincoln’s profile) by Gordon Bennett (1996; synthetic polymer paint on canvas) (www.portrait.gov.au/site/collection_info.php?&irn=67&acno=1999.27). Information from the NPG website: “Koiki (Eddie) Mabo (1937-1992) was a leader of the indigenous population of Townsville, where he established a pioneering Black Community School, before he initiated a legal case for native title against the State of Queensland in 1982. Along with his fellow Meriam people, Mabo was convinced that he owned his family’s land on Murray Island (Mer) in Torres Strait. By contrast, Queensland Crown lawyers argued that on annexation in 1879, all the land had become the property of the Crown. In 1992, the High Court found 6-1 in favour of Mabo and his co-plaintiffs, overturning the accepted view that Australia had been terra nullius (empty land) before white settlement. Mabo died before the historic decision, which was permanently to alter the way Australians think about Aboriginal land ownership.”

Unlike Trindall’s portrait of Gilmore, Bennett’s portrayal of Mabo is dense with symbols and indicators. Frustratingly I haven’t been able to learn much about Kelley’s work in the time available – such a specific subtitle would surely help me to understand quite what Bennett is telling us. The NPG website has “Gordon Bennett said ‘To me the image of Eddie Mabo stood like the eye of a storm, calmly asserting his rights while all around him the storm, a war of words and rhetoric, raged.'”, but that seems only a part of what is being shown.

Hinkson (2010) suggests “Simultaneously, a transformative set of events and an ongoing unresolved tension at the heart of Australian identity are galvanised in this picture. Rather than portraying Mabo the man heroically, Bennett’s picture is a powerful statement about the nature of our mediated public culture and the processes through which we grasp and indeed produce images of persons, the events with which they are associated and the ideas they come to stand for in the present… [The work] conveys a sense of the myth making we, the nation, undertake when we turn a person and his achievements into an element of public imagination.” It’s not a portrait of a man, but a wish or dream?

To be honest, I feel overwhelmed in writing this report. There is so much I don’t know or understand, of art and art history of course, but much more importantly of Australia’s history and place and people – and possible future(s).

I have a developing theory, heavily influenced by recent viewing of Hannah Gadsby’s Oz (see 14-Mar-2014), that Australia as a nation, Australians collectively and individually, are struggling with identity. It’s a theme many artists around the world explore in their work, but it seems to be a particular obsession here. To test this sweeping generalisation I went looking at Mission Statements of various national portrait galleries – surely they show the level of comfort of a people with their national stories. I’m throwing in a couple of basic statistics for support.

Under Corporate Policies and Operational Information on the NPG website I found “The purpose of the National Portrait Gallery is to increase the understanding and appreciation of the Australian people – their identity, history, creativity and culture – through portraiture” (National Portrait Gallery, [n.d.]). Searching for a more formal charter I found in their Corporate Plan: “The purpose of the National Portrait Gallery is to increase the understanding and appreciation of the Australian people – their identity, history, culture, creativity and diversity – through portraiture” (National Portrait Gallery, 2012, p.2). How significant is the extra word?

Both versions seem to give possible support to my theory. Based on recent data, 27% of the Australian population were born overseas and 2.5% are indigenous.

To test the theory further I checked National Portrait Galleries in other countries. In the UK the National Portrait Gallery (established 1856): “The Gallery’s overall aim (derived from the provisions of the 1992 Museums and Galleries Act) is ‘to promote through the medium of portraits the appreciation and understanding of the
men and women who have made and are making British history and culture, and … to promote the appreciation and understanding of portraiture in all media’.”(National Portrait Gallery, 2009, p. 1) (their ellipsis, not mine). The UK has 13% of the population born overseas.

In the USA “The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery tells the history of America through individuals who have shaped its culture” (Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, [n.d.]). While there is no single succinct statement in their Strategic Plan the Introduction includes its “purpose is to illuminate the American experience and help people understand it” and in more general text there is reference to “important questions about our shared identity, our individual place within it, and about what it means to be an American” (Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, 2011. [not paginated]). 13% of the USA population were born overseas while American Indian and Alaskan Natives make up 1.6% of the population.

The New Zealand Portrait Gallery te pukenga whakaata (established 1990) website includes “Our Vision: Portraying New Zealanders and our cultural heritage to all New Zealanders”, and in later text “Our aim is to present portraits of our peoples who, from various cultural or political standpoints, have shaped our country’s development or influenced the way we think about ourselves” (New Zealand Portrait Gallery, [n.d.]). 17% of NZ population were born overseas, 15% are Maori.

Possibly suggestive, certainly not conclusive.

When I had written most of this post I came across an article quite critical of aspects of the NPG and its effectiveness in telling the Australian story. Given the timing I haven’t integrated the information here – so see At the National Portrait Gallery: Art or history? by John Thompson http://recollections.nma.gov.au/issues/vol_5_no_1/notes_and_comments/at_the_national_portrait_gallery_art_or_history (2010).

Resources

‘Cook, James (1728–1779)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cook-james-1917/text2279, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 10 April 2014.

Hinkson, M (2010) “Seeing More than Black and White: Picturing Aboriginality at Australia’s National Portrait Gallery” In Australian Humanities Review (49) [online] Available from http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/archive/Issue-November-2010/hinkson.html (Accessed 11-Apr-2014).

Huda, S. (2008) Pedigree and Panache: A History of the Art Auction in Australia Canberra: ANU E Press [online] Available from http://press.anu.edu.au/?p=75451 (Accessed 10-Apr-2014)

National Portrait Gallery (Australia), [n.d.] Corporate Policies and Operational Information [online] Available from http://www.portrait.gov.au/site/corporate_info.php (Accessed 6-Apr-2014).

National Portrait Gallery (Australia) (2012) Corporate Plan 2011-2014 [online] Available from http://www.portrait.gov.au/UserFiles/file/CorporatePlan2011-2014-2012-07-24.pdf (Accessed 6-Apr-2014).

National Portrait Gallery (UK) (2009) Strategic Plan 2009 – 2015 [online] Available from http://www.npg.org.uk/assets/files/pdf/strategic-plan/NPGStrategicPlan2009-2015.pdf (Accessed 6-Apr-2014).

New Zealand Portrait Gallery, ([n.d.]) About New Zealand Portrait Gallery [online] Available from http://www.nzportraitgallery.org.nz/about-us/about-new-zealand-portrait-gallery (Accessed 6-Apr-2014).

Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, [n.d.] Visiting the Museum [online] Available from http://www.npg.si.edu/inform/visit.html (Accessed 6-Apr-2014).

Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, (2011) Beyond the frame: National Portrait Gallery Smithsonian – Strategic Plan 2011 – 2016 [online] Available from http://www.npg.si.edu/docs/npgsp2.pdf (Accessed 6-Apr-2014).

Wilde, W.H. (1983) ‘Gilmore, Dame Mary Jean (1865–1962)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gilmore-dame-mary-jean-6391/text10923, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 10 April 2014.

UA1-WA:P4-p1-Exercise: Visit a portrait gallery
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Project one: The portrait
Exercise: Visit a portrait gallery

1 Response to “UA1-WA:P4-p1-Exercise: Visit a portrait gallery”



  1. 1 UA1-WA:P4-p3-Exercise: Annotate a classical sculpture | Fibres of Being Trackback on May 23, 2014 at 6:17 pm

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Fabulous figure sculpting workshop with Kassandra Bossell!

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